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Perry, Doggett and Their $830 Million Feud

Six months after Congress established the $10 billion Education Jobs Fund to help states retain and hire teachers, Texas is one of only two states that has not received its money. Whether the state will gets it depends on a game of political chicken between Gov. Rick Perry and a certain Austin Democrat.

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The latest chapter in the feud between Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett over $830 million in federal money for education unfolded Tuesday, when, in his State of the State address, the governor called out a “certain Texas congressman” for singling out Texas “for punishment in pursuit of his own agenda.”

The dispute between Perry and Doggett, D-Austin, began in August, when Congress passed legislation to give $10 billion in aid to allow states to hire and retain teachers. Tacked onto the law was a measure proposed by Doggett and supported by other Democrats — applicable only to Texas — that requires the governor to offer his assurance that the money will be used to “supplement and not supplant” state education financing through 2013.

Six months later, Texas is one of only two states that has not received money from the fund. Attorney General Greg Abbott filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Education to claim the money — without complying with the Doggett provision — and the state’s Congressional delegation has split along party lines.

Abbott argues that the provision violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution because it imposes a requirement on Texas that is not imposed on any other state. In its court papers, the federal government says the condition is there for a reason: In 2009 the state used federal stimulus money intended for education to offset its state spending.

At issue is the Texas-only “maintenance of effort” clause. The clauses — intended to ensure that federal grant money goes to the programs it intends to support — are a common feature in applications for federal education dollars, according to the Department of Education’s brief to the Fifth Circuit. If the governor signed the application and the Legislature was later unable to fulfill his promise, it is unlikely that the state would face legal action from the federal government, said Tom Brandt, a Dallas lawyer who represents school districts and local governments.

“The primary consequence would be political,” Brandt said, adding, “An ‘assurance’ is the language of good faith.”

Both Robert Scott, the state’s education commissioner, and House Public Education Chair Rob Eissler, R-Woodlands, have said they expect the federal money eventually to make its way to the state. Exactly how depends on a game of political chicken between the governor and Doggett.

U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, announced last week that he had filed legislation to repeal what Perry calls the “anti-Texas Doggett amendment.” All 23 of the House Republicans have signed onto the bill.

In response, the nine Democrats in the Texas delegation have written Perry asking for his cooperation in getting the money to Texas classrooms, noting that “repealing the amendment would only indicate that your desire is to use federal aid simply to replace state educational dollars as was done in 2009.”

Now that the Legislature is in session and setting the budget for the 2012-13 biennium, will the governor consider making such an assurance? Catherine Frazier, a Perry spokeswoman, said, “We’re looking to make this legislation fair to the state of Texas and have the Department of Education consider the application as we originally submitted.”

As for Doggett, in an e-mail to The Texas Tribune, he said: “Instead of running to the courtroom, the governor should focus on our classrooms, drop his phony legal excuses and sign a simple, 3-page application that would mean about $830 million for our Texas schools facing the dire consequences of a grossly mismanaged state budget.”

Somehow we think the feud isn’t over.

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Public education Greg Abbott Lloyd Doggett School finance